Early recycler lived in Rockland mansion
As the years have passed, the number of people who remember the original Rockland recycler, Harry Haigh, has decreased. I remember stories my father told me as a child about this “strange character” who lived at 1586 Rockland Avenue.
Harry Haigh was born June 6, 1910 in Leeds, England to Joseph Haigh and Annie Elizabeth Whitwam who had been married at Barley All Saints Church, Yorkshire, England on October 29, 1899. Joseph’s occupation was listed as stone mason while Annie shown as a rag picker. Both their fathers had worked in the local mines. Harry was the couple’s fifth child born in England: his older siblings were Edith (1901), Joe (1902), Fred (1904), and Annie (1906). All are listed in the 1911 England census, residing at North Curzon Street, Gainsborough, Lincolnshire.
In 1912, Joseph Haigh left his family in England and traveled to Canada on the Tunisian, arriving in Quebec City on May 27, 1912. He then made his way to Calgary. Later, Annie and the five children departed Liverpool on the Empress of Ireland, bound for Saint John, New Brunswick, where they landed on November 23, 1912. Their final destination was listed on the Passenger List was Calgary, Alberta. The family appeared on the 1916 census of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta living on 36th Avenue NE, Calgary. By this time a sixth child, May, had been born. By 1916, the family had moved to Victoria where father Joseph worked as a stonemason during the construction of Christ Church Cathedral. They lived at 1157 Pembroke Street. Over the next twenty years, they moved several times, living at 938 Caledonia Street and 1413 Blanshard Street, finally settling at 734 Pandora Avenue. Joseph continued working as a stonemason while his children Edith, Frederick, Annie, and Joseph Jr. all worked at Cornwell’s Bakery, which had two local outlets – 717 Fort Street and 1842 Pandora (Owner Alfred Cornwell lived at this site). Joseph Haigh died on February 15, 1942; his wife Annie outlived him by many years, passing on April 28, 1967.
Harry appeared listed in several city directories, but it was common knowledge that he left home at 17 and worked for the B. C. Electric at Jordan River, renewing the flume at the company’s power plant, and then in a sawmill the company operated. During his short stint at this job, he saved enough money to buy a truck and some Shetland ponies. He sold pony rides at fairs and picnics, but his main source of income was from a private garbage collection business in which he collected the things that were being discarded, sorted out the useable items, then sold them. He made enough money to afford a house at 624 Gorge Road and put men to work sorting out household refuse. He was constantly in trouble with city authorities for having a cluttered yard.
Harry ran for Mayor in 1951, garnering 750 votes, but losing to Claude Harrison. He tried for an Alderman’s position in 1952, gained 2,200 votes, but still lost. That put an end to a colourful civic election career.
He bought the mansion called Piermont at 1586 Rockland Avenue in 1952. He claimed in a later newspaper interview that he had made the purchase “while the real estate people were sleeping.” The mansion had been built in 1906 and it was likely that Harry never knew its history. The original owner, Sidney John Langley Pitts, was a wholesale grocer and importer who had a very successful business. In 1901, he owned 13 properties with a total value of $54,299. By 1904 he was living on St. Charles with other merchant princes and other members of the business establishment. In 1906, he had this mansion built in the Tudor Revival style so common in Rockland. Pitts lived here until his death on August 1, 1942.
Shortly after Harry Haigh moved in, City staffers called the 2.5-acre property a “repository for a vast heap of junk”. He was taken to court – over 100 appearances in total – and usually succeeded in getting his way. Among the items listed as being in his yard in one of the many lawsuits were: kitchen sinks, broken TV antennas, angle irons, stained-glass windows, tins, bottles, rusty bolts, a dilapidated cabin trunk, rusty ice skates, and pieces of railway track. He once came across 200 tons of discarded coal in a dump and transported it to his home. After selling some – and being fined $300 by the City – he left about 25 tons under his front steps. He often brought unemployed men over to his mansion and showed them how to make money from other people’s junk, just as he had done.
By October 31, 1963, Harry had had enough of the City of Victoria and was prepared to sell his 20-room house and the 2.5-acres of land for $75,000. Harry made the news again on March 23, 1964 when he announced that he would be leaving 1586 Rockland by the end of May. He also noted that he was having problems with the Saanich building inspector at his newly acquired property at 5860 West Saanich Road. He had sold the Piermont property to Belvedere Estates and nearby residents worried about what the new owner intended to do with the property (The house was eventually demolished and the land was subdivided into lots for new homes). Before he left, Harry auctioned off everything he had accumulated. He had decided to sell the Saanich property and planned to go to Harrison Hot Springs for a while noting, “All this fighting with the building inspector has been bad for my health.”
Eventually, Harry moved to Sidney, then back to Victoria where he died on December 6, 1982, living at 2120 Ridge Road, of pneumonia and malnutrition. Although the death certificate shows him as “married,” there is no public record of a marriage. It should be noted that the accuracy of other details on the certificate were not entirely accurate as the information was provided by a friend.
Harry Haigh was definitely ahead of his time and I often wonder how he would have functioned in our modern world where we are encouraged to “reduce, reuse and recycle.”